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  • Boucher O'Brien Funeral Home

Joan R. Gelbein 1935-2023

Joan R. Gelbein, after a long illness, died at age 87 on Saturday, May 27, 2023. She leaves Abe, her husband of 65 years, her daughter Eve Zuber and husband Robert, daughter Martha Woodard and husband Craig, Eve’s daughter Samantha Zuber, Martha’s sons Matthew and Benjamin Woodard.

Joan was born on October 23, 1935 in New York City of parents Dorothy and Harry Rose. She grew up and was educated in the borough of Brooklyn ultimately graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in 1953. Clearly she was a gifted poet, writer and artist receiving a scholarship from Syracuse University. After one year she decided to apply to the renowned college “The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art” located in New York City. She entered the Fine Arts program in 1954.

Joan’s journey thereafter was in for some surprises. She graduated in 1957 and entered the working world as a graphic designer in the book publishing industry. While at Cooper she met Abe who was a part time student in the engineering program at the Cooper Union. A series of events led them to fall in love. They were married on January 12, 1958.

Joan maintained her job until the birth of Eve in 1963 after which she became a full time Mom. Martha arrived in 1965. Joan and Abe bought their first house in 1965 located in Plainfield, New Jersey. This was a tumultuous time of civil unrest. Turned out that Plainfield was in the throws of its own civil unrest. Joan and Abe needed to find a liberal like-minded community if they were to stay in Plainfield. The path led them to The First Unitarian Society of Plainfield. They attended a Sunday service and were so moved by the acceptance and message that they signed the membership book that day.

Thus began Joan’s interest in the Unitarian-Universalist worship experience and theology. This was a turning point in her life. Over the next few years she blossomed as a creator and lay leader of community worship. She was an artist, poet, writer and consummate people person. Her words from August 1, 1980:

“I believe in human community – the rattling about with one another in a kind of warm, bumping – through- experiences together, exchanges and interchanges, clues to complexities, the overwhelming potential of responsiveness , the magnificence of emotions and flesh, the sparks from activity, the palpable longing for touching and caring, the treasure of our common dance.”

The UU Ministry beckoned. The next step in her journey was to get a Master of Divinity degree.

Joan entered the Drew University Theological School in September 1978 and received her MDiv magna cum laude May 1981. She then began and satisfactorily completed the rigorous UUA Fellowship process. She interned at the First Unitarian Church of Monmouth County was granted Preliminary Fellowship and ordained in June 1982. A full Fellowship was granted in February 1992. After ordination she served The First Unitarian Society of Ulster County in Kingston, New York. 1985 was a tumultuous year. Abe’s current job was coming to an end. A head hunter came to him with an offer of an interesting job in Wichita, Kansas. Abe accepted the position but only after Joan said yes to the move. At the time they lived in Morristown, NJ. Both daughters were attending college at the time. The house was sold and off they went. While in Wichita, Joan served as interim minister at the First Unitarian Church in Wichita. Unfortunately, she was not a happy camper in Wichita which, with Abe’s support, led her to launch a search for a ministry in a church located in an East coast setting and preferably near an airport. They knew and were prepared for a long distant marriage. It took a long time but the search was successful. Joan was engaged as Assistant Minister in the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia. The church was approximately 1500 miles from Wichita and near the JFK airport in Washington, DC. Thus began the most productive and best, fourteen -and -one half years, of Joan’s life. Her tenure was from January 1989 to June 2003. Abe commuted every weekend from the beginning of her tenure until June 1991. He resigned his position and moved back to Virginia. He had enough of long-distance marriage. After one year Joan was elevated to Associate Minister. The Senior Minister resigned in December 1996. Joan ministered to the congregation by herself until an interim Minister was hired and the search process for a new senior Minister was launched. During that process she lobbied for and was successful in getting the congregation to change the relationship between the ministers from the standard hierarchy of Senior, Associate, etc. to Team Ministry. As such Joan was intimately involved in the search process. The new Minister and Joan had to be compatible for there to be a successful Team Ministry. In preparation for that Joan was promoted from Associate Minister to full Minister. The search process was successfully completed in 1999 with the calling of Michael McGee. With their leadership UUCA continued to grow and prosper.

Joan found her passion. She grew into the role and became a very beloved Minister in a church community especially to women in the community. Kathryn M. Braeman, a member of UUCA shared these words shortly before Joan retired from active ministry in June 2003, quote:

“At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington we’ve experienced how a women can transform ministry. When the Reverend Joan R. Gelbein came to us in 1989, she helped create a paradigm shift. The changes that Rev. Joan brought in a little over 14 years resulted from her ability to run the marathon. We experienced a shift in the power structure from the hierarchical to the communal. Or, to put it another way, the power structure changed from a pyramid to a pinwheel: her “Spirit” blew through the church. We had a new model of ministry as she has been actively and mutually present to those who were in need, but especially to the women in the community. She demonstrated a power model of mutuality, a collegial, communal, and cooperative approach to minister where she acknowledged that she needed and received as much ministry as she gave. She encouraged each woman to develop her own special gifts. What will we do without her?”

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